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(Travelogue published in April 2011)
What do you do with at a place that has only one season? Cherrapunji the land of perpetual monsoons has the same scenery of mist , clouds, fog and the rain-washed hills no matter what time of the year you arrive here. It has already begun to rain in Shillong when I take the undulating road to Cherrapunji approx. 60 kilometers away. Thankfully by the time I reach Cherrapunji the rain has spent itself and is reduced to occasional busts of drizzle.
Cherrapunji may not be the wettest place on the earth anymore – its title now usurped by the nearby Mawsynram- but umbrella wielding tourists still flock to it by busloads. It is not hard to see why. Cherrapunji or Sohra as it was rechristened to a few years ago, is an unique landscape. It is an escarpment hundreds of feet above the Bangladesh plains it overlooks. The hills here end in steep precipices from which drop some of the most spectacular waterfalls in India.
On a cloudy day – which is the norm in these parts- the waterfalls remain hidden but on a clear day you can see the full splendor of the waterfalls plunging from cliffs into deep blue pools. Some of the waterfalls here are as high as 300 meters. The Nohkalikai Falls is the most famous one in Cherrapunji . It falls from a height of 350meters to the rugged valley below before meandering into a stream. It is the forth highest waterfall in India. Meghalaya Tourism has however given a global twist to this Indian statistics calling it the fourth highest in the world on its tourist information boards at the site
I was lucky to get a clear glimpse of this magnificent waterfall and the clouds stayed in abeyance long enough for me to wander down the steep cement stairs. The stairs spiraling down the hillside are especially made so one can see the waterfall in all its glory upclose.
Besides the mystical waterfalls, the hills of Cherrapunji are a great attraction. They are called the Khasi hills after the Khasi people who inhabit them. These hills are like no other in India. The slopes are gradual and the vegetation on them is sparse and found in small swathes. But these hills also have some rare flora including rare orchids , ferns and moss gardens. Cherrapunji also produces its brand of oranges that many claim have more juice than the Nagpuri ones. But most of the hills are just bare with short brown grass. The incessant rains that beats on these hills is rapid and flows off the slopes without penetrating the soil. To add to that there is rampant deforestation. The water does not seep deep enough for taller trees to take root. If you drive from Shillong you will witness the disaster the Khasi hills are headed for. Elaborate mining of the hills seems unchecked. Some of the hills are caricatures of themselves. Half eaten into, they wait to be quarried into the streams of trucks that wait by the hillsides.
Such unchecked devastation leads to the present irony of Cherrapunji being one of the wettest place in the world yet at the same time a place facing acute water shortage. The population of Cherrapunji has boomed over the last few decades putting more pressure on the land. Cherrapunji is inhabited by the Khasi tribe of Meghalaya. They are the old traditional tribes with a unique matrilineal tradition where the husband goes to lives with his wife after marriage and the children take the mothers surname. Water is their main problem. Each year potable water is harder to come by and they have to walk for miles to get their quota of the day. All along the Cherrapunji highway you will witness Khasi women and children standing with pots and pans waiting their turn at a community tap. Down in the streams people are either washing their clothes or themselves.
Apart from the hills and waterfalls Cherrapunji is also known for its elaborate caves. The Krem Mawmluh is the longest cave of them all at 4503meter. The stalagmites and the stalactites of some of these caves reach the roof and the floor of the caves respectively making endless passages some of them so narrow that a man of more than normal girth would have trouble passing through.
There are many other smaller caves but you need more than a day to explore them all. It is however worthwhile driving upto the Thangkharang Park on the outer fringe of Cherrapunji. It is a famous picnic point in Cherrapunji with parks for children. But its main attraction is the balcony view it provides into the plains of Bangladesh far out and below. We are at the height of almost 4500 feet compared to the sea level height of the shimmering Bangladesh plains below. You realize there isn’t any effective natural border between the two countries here. No wonder the influx of illegal Bangladeshi immigrants into the North East each year.
Its not just the immigrants these plains bring. Watching these plains from this sunspot in Cherrapunji, it is not too hard to understand why Cherrapunji gets the amount of rain it gets. For almost 400 kilometers the monsoon winds flow unchecked over Bangladesh until they meet the steep cliffs of Cherrapunji. The winds are forced to rise sharply and the vapors they carry condense quickly and fall as rain. With climate change all this is changing.
How to get here.
Air: Guwahati is the nearest airport. One can take a taxi or bus into Shillong 4 hours away. Shillong provides a perfect halt before setting on a one day trip into Cherrapunji.
Cherrapunji is 58 kilometers by road from Shillong.